“An Economic ‘Frankenstein’”: UAW Workers’ Response to Automation at the Ford Brook Park Plant in the 1950s

by Stephen Meyer

The UAW Responds

After Ford hired the first workers into the Brook Park facility, the UAW began to organize there. The union quickly won representation elections and formed the new UAW Local 1250. From the start Ford workers began to raise grievances connected to the new automated production systems. Even during the UAW’s organization drive, a union leader wrote to Ford’s personnel manager about worker grievances in the Cleveland engine plant and suggested that solving these conflicts would result in “better relations.” The “predominant grievances” included unequal distribution of overtime, the “speed-up” from “antagonistic” foremen who were “pushing production beyond normal,” failing to grant raises “at proper periods,” not following the promotion provisions of the Ford agreement, and “working out of classification.” At Brook Park these issues—production standards, speed-up, wage rates, and job classifications—would plague workers’ shop-floor relations with foremen, supervisors, and managers for several years.

Almost a year later, automated production first raised union concerns about the boundaries of the skilled trades and created a number of novel production-standards issues. Robert J. Schmitz, the UAW Local 1250 skilled trades representative, requested copies of the UAW’s apprenticeship standards, especially the standards for hydraulic apprentices. Later he asked for copies of the skilled trades agreement, which were “urgently needed to settle some questions that are being asked here in our Plant.” Around the same time the new UAW local’s president, Alfred Granakis, pleaded for assistance from Ken Bannon, the director of the UAW Ford department, on a production-standards dispute in the Brook Park plant. Given the unique nature of the dispute, Bannon suggested that Granakis try to get the Ford work sheet for the disputed job. “This is necessary,” he wrote, “in view of the fact that to the best of my knowledge it is practically impossible to establish a production standard on a job such as this.” Bannon here alluded to the unprecedented blend of skills (such as machinist, electrician, and pipefitter) required by the new automation job classification.

It was at this time that Granakis wrote the letter to Walter Reuther expressing his fears about the “economic ‘Frankenstein’” of automation. The UAW president quickly replied that he recognized “the seriousness of the problem” and that the UAW’s executive board had created a three-man special committee, including Vice President Richard Gosser, who specialized in skilled trades issues, and two regional directors, “to check into this whole matter.” He added, “I understand they are planning an early visit to your plant to study this problem, since automation is practiced to a higher degree at your plant than any other plant.” Granakis responded and expressed his appreciation but urgently added, “We are in negotiation at the present time and to put it frankly I am looking for guidance and am a little alarmed because of the Ford Motor Company’s projected picture of Automation.” Despite this offer of assistance, Reuther and other top UAW leaders moved slowly to address the complex problems of automated production.

Granakis appears to have continued his negotiations with Ford officials. In early March 1953 UAW Local 1250 conducted a vote “because of the impasse with the Ford Motor Company, Cleveland Plants on Production Standards and rates on new jobs.” Given the stubborn workplace problems, it is not surprising that the local’s members overwhelmingly endorsed a strike at Brook Park—1,072 voted in favor and 121 against. (At the time the automated plant probably employed only fifteen hundred to two thousand workers.) Such a vote demonstrated to management how serious the contract issues were to union members.

Near the end of March the UAW convention interrupted Local 1250’s negotiations with Ford. A resolution on the convention’s agenda, “The Second Industrial Revolution,” addressed automation—predicting that “technological changes now under way in the industries within the jurisdiction of the UAW-CIO may prove to be as revolutionary as the introduction of the assembly line.” The new production technology, the UAW resolution warned, if “improperly used, for narrow and selfish purposes,” might “create a social and economic nightmare in which men walk idle and hungry—made obsolete as producers because the mechanical monsters around them cannot replace them as consumers.” It called for the UAW’s officers and executive board to “undertake a study of new technological developments . . . for the purpose of developing appropriate policies.”

Rising to speak in support of the automation resolution, Alfred Granakis, Local 1250’s convention delegate, stated, “I just want to say a couple of words on this because we have got 78 people in Cleveland doing the work of 770 people from the Rouge and we are out-producing them with 78 people. . . . I am representing more machines than I am men in Cleveland. The thing I would like to see is this changed just a little bit.” He then chided UAW President Reuther: “I wish the Executive Board would be instructed to formulate a policy and inform the local union affected by it.” Reuther responded, “We are completely aware and fully conscious of the problem which the resolution covers. . . . The Ford engine plant is the best example today where they have whole batteries of machines with a fellow on one end and another fellow half a block away with the whole thing mechanized.”

After the UAW convention Granakis again urgently wrote Reuther, “As you are well aware, the problem of production standards is one of a recurring nature and needs eternal vigilance, particularly with the reactionary Ford Motor Company.” In UAW Local 1250’s contract negotiations, automation continued to prove the most intractable issue. “As for the problem of Automation,” Granakis told the UAW President, “except for saying ‘no’ and insisting on more men on the job, I have taken no other position until I hear from you.” In order to capture the Ford negotiators’ attention, and possibly Reuther’s too, Local 1250 leaders sought and received formal approval for a strike authorization request from the Cleveland area UAW regional director.


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Automation’s Effect on the Brook Park Workforce

Ford Embraces Automation at Brook Park

The UAW Responds

Negotiating Job Classifications and Pay Rates at Brook Park

Worker Absenteeism and Grievances

Wildcat Strikes


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